Monday, April 30, 2012

Sound of My Voice (2012)

Sound of My Voice
Dir. Zal Batmanglij

4.5 out of 5

Self-styled investigative journalists Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) find themselves getting a little too close to the subject of their exposé in Sound of My Voice: an enigmatic cult leader named Maggie who claims to be a messenger from the year 2054. Their thrall is understandable given that Maggie is played by Brit Marling, whose hauntingly ethereal presence was established so well in last year's Another Earth (which, like Sound of My Voice, was also co-scripted by Marling). The film opens with Peter and Lorna's initiation in the basement of a nondescript house in the San Fernando Valley, where the couple believes that Maggie is amassing followers for a nefarious purpose. They are surprised to learn that there's a distinct lack of doomsaying in Maggie's rhetoric, which instead combines a vaguely New Age philosophy with aggressive psychotherapy. But as they embed themselves deeper into the cult, both Peter and Lorna find their hard-earned skepticism tested by Maggie's ability to deflect attention from the veracity of her own story by ruthlessly exploiting the many doubts they still have about themselves.

Sound of My Voice truly shines when it picks up on similar discrepancies between its characters' personal truths and the lies that they tell themselves to sustain those principles. Though Maggie can quickly switch from cuddly to demanding, Peter is just as fond of hectoring his girlfriend when he harps on the need to expose this supposed time-traveler as a shrewd charlatan. Never mind that as a substitute schoolteacher with severe abandonment issues (stemming from his mother's refusal to seek medical treatment for her terminal cancer), he's both professionally and emotionally unequipped to withstand Maggie's powers of persuasion. And while Peter is using Maggie as a stand-in for his maternal revenge complex, Lorna comes to understand her as a kind of mascot for those with broken, unfulfilled lives like herself. Indeed, most of the group takes Maggie's frailty at face value (she claims that the unfamiliar atmosphere is slowly killing her) and regards her with the compassion typically reserved for nursing sick animals.

This is a film that is beyond belief, and proudly so. It is staged with urgency, waiting until the final frame to connect the dots of its several ostensibly non-sequitur scenes, but much of its meaning is obtained organically. Maggie's dewy-eyed finale is perhaps the only bit feels partially unearned - it's difficult to accept after her normally placid gatherings turn into physical and emotional hazing rituals about halfway through the film. Batmanglij is also unsuccessful in imposing a pointless chapter structure on such a dreamy, elliptical story. (It's a formal misstep he atones for by recruiting his brother, Vampire Weekend bandmember Rostam Batmanglij, to contribute the movie's appropriately spacey score.) Thankfully, Sound of My Voice is happy to leave the boundaries of its general narrative undefined, and wisely preserves the mystery that makes Marling's character such a tantalizing figure in the first place. No matter how inviting or perceptive she seems, her essence is ultimately unknowable - a comforting reminder that even if we believe some things are preordained or part of a greater destiny, our future technically remains unwritten.

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